Jarich: Building 5G - the ecosystem fundamentals

(Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns)

It’s been nearly impossible to avoid the hype around 5G over the last few years.  That’s not to say the industry’s interest – obsession, almost – isn’t warranted.  If 5G can deliver on everything it’s promising, it has the opportunity to enable new industries and inject new innovation into the mobile value chain.  That might sound like massive hyperbole, but in looking to deliver a magnitude of order improvement in user throughput, enable massive Internet of Things (IoT) rollouts, and support critical communication applications, 5G hopes to do something that no previous wireless technology generation has ever accomplished (e.g., new data rates, energy efficiency, coverage, etc.) while supporting new industries and mobile use cases in the process.  At the same time, 5G is happening within the context of a massive shift in how networks are being (and will be) built, leveraging IT processes and infrastructure in order to keep costs in check, efficiently deliver new services, and align with the enterprise customer segments that 5G looks to tap.  To look at 5G, then, as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink what wireless networks can do and their relationship to computing is more than fair.

Among the many uncertainties facing 5G development, however, is, “Who is going to make this happen?”

To date, much of the discussion around 5G industry development has revolved around a handful of players.  First are the mobile network operators racing to trial, deploy, and envisage use cases for 5G. Next are the mobile network infrastructure suppliers making a living selling 3G and 4G gear, and needing to leverage their position to profit from what comes next. Finally are the regulators enabling (or hindering) 5G development via spectrum allocations and industry investments.

Given their role in driving previous mobile technology generations, it only makes sense to start the 5G discussion with these players.  Ending the discussion here, however, ignores a fundamental reality: executing on the 5G promise will require a broad set of stakeholders that stretches well beyond the usual suspects.

  • Device Suppliers: devices are almost always a gating factor on the rollout of new wireless technologies.  5G looks to be no different.  (Sort of.)  With massive IoT as a 5G use case, 5G devices should look very different from 3G or 4G devices.  Think wide area connectivity built into a much wider array of compute devices.  If that helps speed those devices to market, all the better.
  • Device Silicon Vendors: whether processors, radios or combinations thereof, 5G device support will require robust 5G device silicon solutions. And, as a new technology generation, 5G opens up an opportunity for new silicon vendors.
  • Network Silicon Vendors: 5G promises to lean heavily on small cells and virtual RAN assets. In combination with new antenna technologies and spectrum requirements, successful 5G infrastructure solutions will depend on 5G network silicon innovations.  Perhaps more importantly, it will depend on commercialization of those innovations.  
  • Alternative Service Providers: 2G, 3G, and 4G were all rolled out by telecom service providers. Building on the mobile wireless interests of industry participants (cloud and webscale players, MSOs, etc.) and an embrace of unlicensed or shared spectrum regimes, it’s likely that 5G will be a different story.
  • OSS/BSS Suppliers: for 5G to execute on the promise of supporting diverse markets along with use cases including massive IoT and critical communications, new billing and provisioning assets will be necessary, if only to support 5G scale demands.
  • IT Industry Writ Large: the role that IT transformation will play in 5G rollouts goes largely ignored.  However, from the importance of robust IT hardware in supporting network virtualization, to the embrace of vertical industries, to the need for new data analytics capabilities in support of massive IoT, there should be no doubt that 5G will need to go hand in hand with new IT investments, innovations, and architectural re-thinks.

On its face, the notion that a fundamental new generation of mobile technology could only be built by an entire ecosystem – cutting across all aspects of telecom, IT, hardware, software, and vertical industries – seems patently obvious.  That hasn’t stopped it from getting ignored in many 5G discussions. 

In an effort to remedy that, we need to take a deeper look at all of the innovations necessary to deliver on 5G. It can’t be a quick story, but we hope to do just that over the next few weeks, looking at specific technology components and deployment considerations while considering the roles and viewpoints of diverse players that will help to realize 5G’s potential.  You can check out the posts at www.networkmatter.com and, as always, feel free to be in touch with your own feedback or insights.   

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.